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The Hills of California | Harold Pinter Theatre

Jez Butterworth's latest play, The Hills of California, directed by the brilliant Sam Mendes, is a heart-wrenching exploration of familial bonds, memory, and the tumultuous journey of self-discovery and grief.

Set in the scorching summer of 1976 in Blackpool, the narrative centres around a dying mother and her four daughters who gather at their family home to bid their final farewells. The dilapidated Seaview guesthouse becomes a symbolic stage for the sisters, each harbouring her unique struggles and inner demons. Against a backdrop of economic decline where shops have shuttered, the seaside resort's fortunes have dwindled, and the Seaview guesthouse, once a luxury abode, appears desolate and cluttered, this setting mirrors the family's disintegration, establishing a powerful and evocative atmosphere that sets the tone right from the start.

The sisters – in the now – enter one at a time and the stark contrasts in their lives are apparent. Helena Wilson portrays Jill, the devoted caregiver who is optimistic and resilient; Ophelia Lovibond embodies the restless Ruby; Leanne Best plays the angry and jealous Gloria, hurling verbal abuse with abandon; and Laura Donnelly plays Joan, the prodigal sister seen in the final act, the only one who successfully made it to California, repeatedly refusing to answer her mother's numerous letters. Together, they deliver nuanced portrayals, meticulously developing each character with care and precision. And it is this chemistry between them that makes the show so raw and beautiful.

The rotation between past and present, skilfully facilitated by the set designed by Rob Howell, adds an epic dimension to the narrative, emphasising the interplay between memory and reality. Straddling between the two timelines provides additional context, revealing the dreams the girls once had and why they faded, while steadily guiding us toward uncovering the real reason behind Joan's departure. The parallel cast – featuring Nancy Allsop (Young Gloria), Sophia Ally (Young Ruby), Lara Mcdonnell (Young Joan), and Nicola Turner (Young Jill) – as the young versions of the sisters delivers stunning

performances, offering the audience a poignant glimpse into the family's past. Under the strict guidance of their mother Veronica, also portrayed by Donnelly in a dual role, the four sisters are trained to become the Webb Sisters, a musical act reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. Enter a big-time American agent who sets the stage for a compelling exploration of sacrifice and ambition within the family. Without any spoilers, this is where the show really takes off.

Butterworth's script is a masterclass in storytelling, blending sharp humour with complex themes. It takes the audience on a journey that reveals why the past can influence the present and how the stories we inherit ultimately shape our perception of reality. Together with Mendes' meticulous direction, the production is well-paced with moments of love, rage, denial and loss expertly crafted to elicit a powerful response from the audience.

The music, a central element in the play, serves as a metaphorical thread, connecting the characters and their experiences. Nick Powell's score, weaving through the narrative, provides moments of escape, solace, and nostalgia as the four sisters grapple with their past.

The Hills of California is an epic masterpiece. Butterworth and Mendes have created a production that is not only emotionally charged but also thought-provoking, inviting the audience to confront the nuances of their own pasts. Be prepared for an emotional journey that lingers long after the final bow. The Hills of California plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15th June. For more information and tickets, follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Mark Douet


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